[10 June 2003]
Book reviewers dream about the chance to review quality fiction—books that make all those pre-release clichés, like “compelling page-turner”, “sure-fire bestseller” and (my personal favorite) “unputdownable” necessary. Australian-born author, Janette Turner Hospital’s latest offering, Due Preparations for the Plague, is one such book that delivers on each and every promise. It’s a rippling current through a sordid world encased by fear, politics and familial bonds. The plot movies so quickly, the reader rarely has a minute to catch even the slightest breath.
Great fiction, though it may be, what gives the book a definite edge lies in its timeliness. The plot is extraordinarily relevant in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attack on the United States, while the world is smack in the middle of the US/UK-led war with Iraq and struggling with the onset of the “deadly-SARS-virus” as it starts its ill-fated route across the globe.
Author Turner Hospital grabs all those events we struggle to understand—terrorism, unlawful or unethical political dealings, religious hypocrisy, and the threat of biochemical warfare—weaving them sneakily through the story of a man and a woman searching for the truth about the fate of loved ones who perished in a doomed flight from Paris to New York. This is fiction that could be reality, and Turner Hospital creates intricate scenarios that are so believable as to be downright terrifying. At the center of all this is Lowell, whose mother was one of the many who died aboard flight 64, and the mysterious Samantha who, herself, was a passenger. Finding they have more in common than perhaps they’d like to, Lowell and Samantha are hurtled into a dangerous New World in which she thrives desperate for answers, and one causing him, paranoid and afraid, to almost lose his grip.
While the story of Lowell and Samantha is the book’s defining thread, they are but a tiny part of a mix of lives tainted by terrorism and by the unfathomable mindset of the men controlling their fates. Turner Hospital uses Lowell and Samantha and their risky search to explore a number of post-9/11 themes, not least of which the idea of acceptable risk and the use of human being as damage collateral for men who will do whatever they need to in order to achieve personal and political goals.
This theme, though, lies on the surface of the book. Deeper set is the idea of “not knowing”. The book examines the psychological destruction inherent in personal loss, especially loss clouded in ambiguity. What is fate? What is time? Can we ever really know what is in store for us in an age when we can flip on the tube and see the World Trade Center crumbling to ground? With Due Preparations, Turner Hospital suggests that any kind of definite understanding or unwavering belief in information received is simply impossible. Because we have no idea where our destinies will take us, we have no way to genuinely prepare. Though sales of canned goods and gas masks surely rise whenever certain threats arise, exactly to what degree can band-aid solutions be considered actual preparedness? Turner-Hospital suggests “to no degree at all,” as her book highlights the kinds of man-made terrors all but impossible to detect until all hope is lost, and all efforts to halt oncoming disaster futile.
But is knowledge and understanding of terrorism risks better? Are the terrors of the current world so entirely mind-boggling that the security of blinded-by-life nine-to-five living is actually a blessing? After all, should we open our eyes as wide as we can to the multitude of hidden and not-so-hidden threats in our current terror-driven world, we’d surely never step outside without gas masks at the ready. This is something Lowell and Samantha well know in their paranoia-driven lives, having seen first hand the devastation of the undetectable risk.
It is not inflamed fear, though, that Turner Hospital seems to wish to exploit. Sure, her well-researched (into everything from Parisian jazz to deadly chemicals and gases to Nebuchadnezzar) tale is hellishly frightening giving scary insight into how easily the effects of terrorism can literally be rained down upon us, but she manages instead through sharp characterization and a definite belief in the resilience of man over machine to make hope, faith and forgiveness the very real stars of the book. Not an easy task when dealing with such repellant subject matter.
Due Preparations for the Plague is this year’s definitive political thriller. Turner Hospital remains impassioned and smart the entire way through, keeping the pace and the effort at stampede pace at all times. The author cements herself as an uncompromising literary force with Due Preparations for the Plague. Readers will stay up long into the night, rapidly turning pages while trying not to shield their eyes from the book’s harrowing revelations. It is tough going, but it’s also enlightening, touching and stunning. It couldn’t have come a better time.